'These guys were my life and still are'
BYRON — Tom Ryan sits in his natural habitat.
He is relaxed on the bench of the observation platform overlooking the deer enclosure of Oxbow Park, where he began working as a summer intern in 1979 and rose to become the head of the park. In those years, Ryan served as a giant presence for parks and helped Oxbow's dramatic expansion.
Ryan is dressed in a ragged old coat, like the one he wore when he first began. He prefers that "a thousand times over" to the suit he wore as superintendent of Olmsted County Parks for 10 years. He retired last spring.
"I can't throw away old field clothes, or crusty boots," he says. "The more patched, torn and sour, the better." His wife, Mary Ann, is no fan of those clothes, he says.
He stops chatting when six students from a Red Wing elementary school dash up. Ryan listens.
A girl with a name tag reading "Alyssa" and "white tailed deer" tells fellow students that bucks grow antlers in April and May and deer don't eat meat. It is her job to research deer and report to fellow students, she says.
"You did a good job, thanks for coming all the way from Red Wing," Ryan says.
The six run to another exhibit.
"I missed that sound when I moved to town (to become head of parks), children interested, excited and happy," he says. "Listen to that din, that's what this place has always been, kids having fun, curious."
Back to his roots
Ryan gets back to his story. He is 57 and has worked for parks or natural resources for about four decades; now he's a volunteer at the park, returning to his roots.
He says he met, was influenced by and worked with some of the top people in natural resources over those years, among them Harry Buck, the first naturalist at Quarry Hill Nature Center, and Dr. Paul Zollman who spent countless hours at Oxbow's zoo caring for animals. Ryan also lists many of the bosses he's had on the county level.
"It's just overwhelming," Ryan says. "My sense of gratitude for all the people I have had experiences with in my career makes me want to weep, tear up." He does a little.
Don't forget all the volunteers, he adds and begins to list them. It goes into double digits before he gives up. "I can see all the great things that happened in this park," Ryan says. Without them, Oxbow would be "quaint little picnic tables with a critter or two."
As a volunteer, it's now his job to feed the bison, deer and elk.
He calls back to double check what the bison are to be fed. "I want to get good information because I'm not the boss any more," he says.
He scoops feed into several pans and tosses two bales of hay over the fence. "These guys were my life and still are," he says. He recalls facts he told visitors when he was naturalist: bulls can weigh 2,000 pounds, "and they can run faster and farther than a horse."
Parks help healing
As he walks to the deer enclosure, he talks about what makes him tick.
He is a big man, and people are drawn to him by his Irish wit, large laugh, memory of names, countless stories and boundless energy. Deep down, however, he's an introvert, he says. His line of work and passion for people bring out that outgoing charm. When he's done for the day or needs to recharge his batteries, it's off to the woods or water.
After feeding the deer and elk, he walks to the deer viewing platform, the one dedicated to his son, Brenndan who died in 1998 of complications of diabetes; he was 16. After he lost his son, he loved being alone in the park on cold weekends with no one around. "Spiritually, this is where he was with me," he says.
Ryan says he's not alone in having parks help in healing. He's seen parks help many others suffering grief such as his, battling alcohol or drugs, or dealing with divorce.
Karlin Ziegler, who succeeded Ryan as head of Oxbow and also department superintendent, perhaps best summed up Ryan when she said what sets him apart is the "passion he had for the parks, it's really what drove him, people saw that."
A career outside
Ryan grew up on North Broadway in Rochester and walked to St. John's Elementary School. That "was kind of a solitude thing," he says. "That's where I learned to appreciate the beauty of the outdoors."
He was no angel — he liked throwing snowballs at cars and running. "I was extremely talented at that," he says.
The outdoors, however, were his earliest lesson. He says he wanted an outdoor career from the start.
In high school, he wanted to work summers at Oxbow. He says he called Parks Superintendent Dave Dunn daily. Finally, Dunn called him. "He said, 'Kid, if I give you a summer job, will you quit calling me?'" Ryan says. "He said, 'Show up Monday morning.'"
When attending Lourdes High School, Ryan also got a lesson from Buck at Quarry Hill who told Ryan to take a speech class. "Natural resource jobs are people jobs" Buck told Ryan. "I never forgot that," Ryan says.
'Hard, hard business'
Ryan worked his way up to being head of the park and the Zollman Zoo. When Jim Foote retired as superintendent of parks, Ryan applied. He wasn't seeking more power, he says, but feared the county would hire someone who would turn the parks upside down. Ryan got the job … and an education.
"It's a hard, hard business when you get to that level," he says. In the park, people asked what they could do for the park; as superintendent, people wanted to know what the parks could do for them.
In his job, "the hardest thing for me was to sit back," he says. "I'm an Irishman … I want to attack back. Turning the other cheek has never been my strong suit." But it was part of his job.
Finally, he and his wife, Mary Ann, decided to retire while they were still strong. They had gone through some hard times: the loss of Brenndan; their daughter, Colleen, being injured in a serious car crash; worrying as their son Michael served with the military in Afghanistan; and his own cancer.
As he talks, he's again interrupted — "I hear a white-throated sparrow," he says. That's a natural thing for him to do, listen, observe, teach.
Back to talking about his life, he and Mary Ann spent time at the North Shore, went to a Van Morrison concert in Nashville and toured Glacier and Yellowstone national parks; he went to blacksmithing school. He's also chairman of the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission , which advises the Minnesota Legislature on how to spend about $40 million a year in Legacy funds for urban and rural parks and trails.
Now, the sun is getting warmer and it's time for Ryan to head back to his volunteer work, but he adds something: he has "a heart full of gratitude" for being part of the parks.
"What better life of public service could I have had? None."